By Sean Carroll | February 9, 2006 11:52 am

I’m guessing that you’ve heard about the Mohammed cartoon controversy (see Wikipedia article). To make a long story short, Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, just trying to do their bit for world peace and harmony, invited artists to submit cartoons with the prophet Mohammed as their subject. They published twelve of them, featuring various degrees of ridicule of Islam. (You can see the cartoons here.) Muslims worldwide reacted with outrage, featuring protests, rioting, arson, and at least one counter-cartoon contest — sponsored by an Iranian newspaper, asking for cartoons about the Holocaust. (Presumably because they think that Danes were the major targets of the Holocaust?) There is no shortage of blogging on the topic; for contrasting views, see series at Daily Kos and the Volokh Conspiracy.

I haven’t said anything about the controversy, both because I’ve been busy and since I thought the major points were perfectly obvious. The most-discussed points of contention seem to have been: “Did the Danish newspaper have the right to publish such offensive cartoons?”, and “Did the protestors have the right to resort to arson and rioting in response?” Put that way, the answers are obviously “Yes” and “No,” and there’s not much more to say.

Denmark, as far as I know, is not covered by the First Amendment, but in a democratic society newspapers should be permitted to publish just about whatever they want. The fear of offending people is no reason to suppress public speech. (Speech within private associations is a different matter.) The correct response, if something is said with which you disagree, is to say something else in return — the free market of ideas. True, the cartoons in question are low-brow and intentionally provocative, not the expression of any subtle argumentation. But quality of the speech is not relevant. If you don’t like it, let your displeasure be known, like this London (!) protester is doing:
Freedom Go To Hell
A little self-undermining, maybe, but certainly taking advantage of an appropriate outlet for his own personal expression.

The violent reaction from some Muslims (not all, certainly) is completely inappropriate by any standard. This kind of destructive impulse is not something unique to Islam; it’s a familiar human response, one that is encouraged by fundamentalism of all kinds. At its source, it’s the same impulse that leads people to bomb abortion clinics or set fire to rural churches. Demonization of people unlike you, and violent action against them, is a frequent feature of extreme religious belief; not all religious belief, obviously, but a particularly virulent strain. It is antithetical in every way to the values of a liberal democratic society. This is a paradox of free societies: they must tolerate all sorts of belief, even those that are incompatible with freedom.

The subtleties of the cartoon issue only arise when we move from the question of whether Jyllands-Posten should have been allowed to publish the cartoons (since they obviously should have been), to whether it was a good idea to actually do so. Just because speech is allowed doesn’t mean it is mandatory. Knowing that the cartoons would offend the sensibilities of many Muslims, should the newspaper have printed them?

It’s easier to defend freedom of offensive expression when you’re not the one being offended. The same newspaper has apparently been less willing to publish potentially offensive cartoons about Jesus, for example. And many of the folks who are vociferously defending the cartoons are less willing to stand up for freedom of expression when it comes to flag burning. On the flip side, they have asked whether those who wring their hands over giving offense were all that bothered about works of art that offended Christians, such as Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary (you know, the one with the elephant dung).

Whether or not a group should offend another group (granting that they have the right to) isn’t a matter of fundamental rights, it’s a matter of politeness and civil discourse. The analogy between the Mohammed cartoons and Piss Christ is not a very close one. The former were published in a newspaper, almost begging to be distributed as widely as possible. The latter was shown in an art museum; if you didn’t want to go, nobody was forcing you. Art is (sometimes) supposed to be shocking and provocative; the idea that a gallery should refrain from displaying pieces that offend some people’s sensibilities is dangerous and counter-productive.

Still, even though it was a much more public forum, I don’t think that requirements of civility and politeness are paramount here. It’s true that, although I personally am happy to explain to Muslims why their ideas about religion are completely incorrect, I wouldn’t go out of my way to simply be offensive to their beliefs. But it’s not my newspaper. The editors of Jyllands-Posten weren’t being offensive by mistake; they were making every effort to be offensive, but it’s not like they were putting up posters in downtown Mecca. I may think it’s juvenile and stupid (and I do), but it’s their choice. I doubt that many of the rioters are regular readers of Jyllands-Posten, a right-wing Danish rag; they should have just ignored it.

Unfortunately I can’t demonstrate my good faith by my willingness to allow anyone to offend my own beliefs in the same way, since my beliefs are of a somewhat different character. But, for the record, if anyone wants to draw some offensive cartoons about Galileo, or John Stuart Mill, or Charles Darwin, or Virginia Woolf, or Einstein, or Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Bertrand Russell, be my guest. I promise not to riot.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Religion, World
  • Arun

    Ted Rall, a working cartoonist, has a take on it:

    It is an impressive rant, for those who don’t want to navigate there, here is an excerpt. I generally agree with it, by the way.

    As the only syndicated political cartoonist who also writes a syndicated column, my living depends on freedom of the press. I can’t decide who’s a bigger threat: the deluded Islamists who hope to impose Sharia law on Western democracies, or the right-wing clash-of-civilization crusaders waving the banner of “free speech”–the same folks who call for the censorship and even murder of anti-Bush cartoonists here–as an excuse to join the post-9/11 Muslims-suck media pile-on. Most reasonable people reject both–but neither is as dangerous to liberty as America’s self-censoring newspaper editors and broadcast producers.

    “CNN has chosen not to show the [Danish Mohammed] cartoons out of respect for Islam,” said the news channel.

    “We always weigh the value of the journalistic impact against the impact that publication might have as far as insulting or hurting certain groups,” said an editor at The San Francisco Chronicle.

    “The cartoons didn’t meet our long-held standards for not moving offensive content,” said the Associated Press.


    If these cowards were worried about offending the faithful, they wouldn’t cover or quote such Muslim-bashers as Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens or George W. Bush. The truth is, our national nanny media is managed by cowards so terrified by the prospect of their offices being firebombed that they wallow in self-censorship.

    Precisely because they subvert free speech from within with their oh-so-reasonable odes for “moderation” and against “sensationalism,” the gatekeepers of our national nanny media are more dangerous to Western values than distant mullahs and clueless neocons combined. Editors and producers decide not only what’s fit to print but also what’s not: flag-draped coffins and body bags arriving from Iraq, photographs of Afghan civilians, their bodies reduced to blobs of blood and protoplasm, all purged from our national consciousness. You might think it’s news when the vice president tells a senator to “go f— yourself” on the Senate floor, but you’d be wrong–only tortured roundabout descriptions (like “f—“) make newsprint. “This is a family newspaper,” any editor will say, arguing for self-censorship–as if kids couldn’t fill in those three letters in “f—.”

    As if kids read the paper.

  • bittergradstudent

    It changes nothing about the larger issues having to do with this, but Islam interprets the graven images commandment very, very literally. It is considered haram (forbidden by Islamic law) to create any depicition of Muhammad, regardless of whether or not it mocks Islam or is super-respectful and religious. Thus, to a Muslim, this isn’t the same thing as a cartoon mocking jesus would be to a Christian. The comparison to Piss Christ, as Sean says above, is much more apt.

    That being said, I still can’t belive there is mass rioting, and the withdrawal of ambassadors over this. The actions of fundamentalist Muslims make no sense to me, really.

  • Arun

    might be of interest to you, bittergradstudent.

    Some of this fundamentalism stems from Wahabbi Islam, where even the Prophet’s house was demolished because of this ideology.

  • Hektor Bim

    bittergradstudent is not correct.

    It is considered haram by some Muslims to create any depiction of Muhammad. Notably, images of Muhammad are for sale in Shia Iran and officially sanctioned there and by some Sufis. The Ottomans (Sunnis to a man) drew Muhammad regularly in miniatures, only obscuring his face by flames. The level of iconoclasm in Muslim thought and culture has varied over the centuries and varies today among different Muslim communities.

    Salafism or Wahabism does not equal Islam, any more than Sunni thought encompasses all of Islam, despite the best efforts of people like Saudia Arabia and apparently bittergradstudent.

    A lot of the outrage comes from the satirical and offensive intent of some of the drawings.

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  • michaeld

    Thank you Sean!! As someone with broadly liberal views I have been really disgusted by the reaction of a lot of liberals to this, and disturbed that most of the people condemning these intimidation tactics and upholding freedom of speech are Bush supporters, who supported the invasion of Iraq, think only one side is at fault in the Israel-Palestine conflict etc. It’s good to see that not all liberals feel obliged to pander to Islam.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Well, as with most of my kind I alternate between benevolent condescension towards “our Danish cousins”, and irrational anger about their sanctimony in view of their history and current efforts.
    But, by far the most annoying thing about all of this, is that now Norwegians are being confused with Danes, and both are trying to get out of it by pretending to be Icelanders…

  • Greg Kuperberg

    The whole thing is crazy on many levels. No, Jyllands-Posten should not have published the cartoons. What does it accomplish to deliberately offend the believers of some religion, just because you can? The comparison to Piss Christ and similar raises an interesting point. At the time, it was tempting for someone like me to shrug it off as shock art, and even to shrug off the fact that it was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. But was public funding really a good idea? It seems hard to argue now that it was.

    On the other hand, the response to the cartoons is horrible, excessive, dishonest, hypocritical, inconsistent, and otherwise irrational. The aspect that really gives me pause is that on the basis of zero evidence, Iranians and others decided to blame and bash the Jews. In response they do not draw anti-Danish cartoons, they draw anti-Jewish cartoons. (Which they have been doing for a long time anyway. I’m not sure why they see any fresh provocation in it.) It is an echo of the Crusades, in which the Europeans slaughtered Jews as a warm-up to fighting better-armed Muslims.

    I am tempted to say that it is squaring the circle to try to make religion logical. Even if you accept basic concerns of religions — Christians don’t want public sexuality, Muslims don’t want pictures of Mohammed — the responses are hopelessly inconsistent. In one season, a show like Temptation Island provokes no great outcry. On another day, Janet Jackson bares her breast and that’s a scandal. So there is a difference, I suppose, between studied and incidental provocation of religious people. Studied provocation is sometimes foolish. Incidental provocation can’t be helped.

  • Belizean

    I didn’t think that my opinion of the American news media could sink any lower until this week’s display of its mass cowardice. I agree with Rall that a particularly disgusting aspect of this cowardice is the media’s insistance on denying it.

    I also found the Bush administration’s cowardly labeling of the cartoons as “unacceptable” to be irritatingly disappointing.

    If our society this cowed by Islamists today, what will happen when they have access to nuclear weapons courtesy of Iran? Ass kissing 24/7?

    The one bright spot is the surprising courage of the European press, lead most notably by a French magazine. Who would have thunk it?

  • Greg Kuperberg

    Well, I shouldn’t overgeneralize. There are religious people who don’t buy into the provocation game. If people keep to their own beliefs — expressing a public opinion from time to time is also fine — then I don’t have to pass judgment on what they believe. My personal belief is that religion isn’t rational, but detente is only fair if the believers on the other side abide by it.

    Another point is that no one is rational all the time anyway. I don’t think that it is ever good to be irrational, but it is only human. Certainly there are devout people whose total irrationality is much less than that of many atheists.

  • Greg Kuperberg

    I can’t say that I quite understand the accusation of cowardice in this case. Is cowardice any impulse to avoid harm, or is it just unwillingness to dangerous but necessary things? I don’t see the cowardice in letting sleeping dogs lie.

  • Belizean

    I can’t say that I quite understand the accusation of cowardice in this case. Is cowardice any impulse to avoid harm, or is it just unwillingness to dangerous but necessary things?

    Cowardice is the failure to performs one’s duty as a consequence of fear. The duty of the press (as it often declares) is to inform the public. It is not to minimize the danger to its employees. The cartoons are clearly newsworthy — i.e. the public needs to be informed about them by seeing them — because these images cause of a global epidemic of rioting.

    It would also have cowardice if, for example, the New York Times had refused to publish Abugraib photos in response to implied threats from the Bush administration. [They only published them, it now seems, because they were secure in the knowledge that they had nothing whatsoever to fear from the administration.]

  • Greg Kuperberg

    I guess I would agree, given the precedent of Abu Ghraib, that it would be newsworthy to reprint the cartoons. I agree because I was curious to see what the fuss was about. The newspapers evidently decided have decided that the newsworthiness of the cartoons was outweighed by the anger that they would invite. So I guess this technically qualifies as cowardice.

    But is it unacceptable cowardice? I am not convinced, for several reasons. First, anyone who wants to can find the cartoons on the Internet anyway. Maybe a reasonable compromise would be for the newspapers to explain how to find the cartoons on the Internet.

    Second, if I had a traffic accident with a mobster, then I would be “cowardly” and inconsistent in response. I might well try to keep it confidential, even if I might publicly talk about a traffic accident with someone who is not a mobster. I would not even take the trouble to thank the other driver for not being a mobster. I don’t think that we owe each other explicit thanks for not being killers. By the same token, I don’t think that the New York Times owes the administration thanks for not being as tyrannical (at least toward the domestic press) as Islamic terrorists.

    Third, the New York Times doesn’t owe you anything either. They are a privately owned newspaper. Yes, they should print newsworthy things, because that is their product. But it’s not their “duty”. It may even be the ideal that they strive for, as with their masthead slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print”. Even so, they are allowed to fall short. There is a lot of foot-tapping from many quarters over why the Times did this and didn’t do that. I think that most of it is out of place.

  • Arun

    It seems very likely that the so-called offensive cartoons were published in an Egyptian newspaper, way back, October 17, 2005.


    Therefore the incendiary nature of this is not in the printing of the cartoons – the “outrage” is an orchestrated thing, orchestrated some by governments and some by non-governmental groups.

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  • Anti-Nothing

    Presumably you do know that Holocaust-denail is outlawed in many EU-member states, hence the Iranian counter-cartoon contest; on the other hand the figures published in the Human Rights Watch[0] reports on the rise of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim hate crimes contribute a thing or two to the Muslims’ view that the west is out there to get them. Regarding the argument of previous depictions of the prophet, I think that it is best to quote the BBC here: “It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists, and the association of the Prophet with terrorism, that is so offensive to the vast majority of Muslims.”[45]


  • Greg Kuperberg

    How much violence against Muslims has there been in Denmark? Denmark is also not among the countries that outlaw Holocaust denial. Is the idea now that Western countries have to answer for each others’ politics?

  • David Gillies

    One can’t simply dismiss Jyllands-Posten as a ‘right wing Danish rag’. It’s actually the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Denmark and is only really right wing by comparison to the general tenor of public discourse there (it’s also begging the question to link ‘right wing’ with ‘rag’. The axes ‘left wing/right wing’ and ‘rag/respectable publication’ are orthogonal). The original exercise was to investigate the degree to which self-censorship (which is really more pernicious than the overt kind) was suppressing artistic and satirical engagement with radical Islam. To that end, it has been a smashing success. The very fact that such banal subject matter engendered such a furious response is significant in and of itself. Had the cartoons been genuinely inflammatory, then the offence taken might have been more understandable—although its violent expression would have been no less reprehensible.

    It’s a little disingenuous to say that free speech does not force us to offend. If it is to mean anything, free speech includes the right to offend, and rights that are not exercised atrophy. If I disagree with someone, then expressing my disagreement is likely to cause him offence. I think that vegetarianism is tantamount to an eating disorder like bulimia, for example, a standpoint that no doubt is offensive to vegetarians. But I don’t expect to see a gang of militant vegans threatening to behead me.You have to push the envelope. Censorship, including self-censorship, only happens at the margins of discourse, and never in the middle. It is only controversial speech that has to fear the blue pencil of the thought police. And the degree to which your interlocutor believes in his position is neither here nor there. Strong and sincere belief in evil does not mitigate the evil itself. A Fascist or Stalinist true believer is not excused because he really believes in the rightness of his cause. Likewise the Islamofascist barbarians shrieking about depictions of Mohammed. They might be genuinely upset, but that is no reason to indulge them. And I’ll cut them a lot more slack when they stop printing the truly grotesque anti-Semitic cartoons in their own press.

    By the way, nice blog. I came here looking for news on the LHC.

  • The one intelligently designed

    I completely agree with what Sean has said. I am a Muslim myself. I was offended myself when I saw these cartoons cause it seemed like those guys are not trying to make a joke but just trying to humiliate the Muslim tradition. But the kind of fuss it has created is plain stupidity. A billion people going crazy over the work of a few cartoonists.
    I personaly feel like its not only a matter of freedom of press its also an internal matter of a country. Why do people want to dictate their norms and traditions on other countries. I think its upto the Danes to think if what was done was right or wrong.

  • The One intelligently designed

    As for the voilence in protests is concenred , you should also keep it in mind that it happens all the time in many of the third world countries and not only over religious issues and not only in muslim countries. Getting some people who could burn some buildings and break cars is not that hard. When you havs millions of youth having nothing to do at all, thats what they do. I cant speak of other countries, but in my own country, I have yet to see a person who took a day off from his job to go to these protests.
    To belizean, If what you mean is that they should have printed one or two cartoons as illustration of what the story is all about then you may be right. But printing them as a medal of press freedom doesnt make sense to me. Its about the decision that what you think as worthy of printing or not. Let me make a few cartoons about Holucost or Black slavery and then see if they are courageous enough to print them. Would you advocate with the same reasoning then?

  • Greg Kuperberg

    Free speech also includes the right to verbally humiliate a loyal spouse, so it is a good thing that there are married cads who still do that. Otherwise the right to do so might atrophy.

    Although I can’t quite place it, there seems to be a non sequitur in that logic.

  • Douglas

    Has anyone really considered the fact that these riots are obviously state-sanctioned? These nations do not hold freedom of speech (obviously) and protests are certainly banned. The only reason citizens of these countries can get “away” with rioting and protesting the cartoons is that as their leaders tell the Western world “We condemn these acts of violence,” they are giving these people days off work and the means to perform acts of violence. Obviously these nations’ leaders are benefiting *tremendously* from the whole fiasco.

    Why is it that American media has taken to such a decidedly barbaric portrayal of Islam (which isn’t new at all)? Why is it that all Americans hear about that religion is car bombs, riots, and terrorism? Could the media possibly be benefiting from the outrage and suspicion that Americans have had towards Muslims for many years now? Could, I don’t know… the President?

    Seeing as we have no contact with what is actually going on in these countries, I’m not surprised that our views are being shaped by the interests of those who determine what we can know.

    …And isn’t it just a little odd that the cartoons were published last September, over four months ago? How clear do I have to make it that people are flaming the passions of a few individuals to benefit from this kind of news!?

  • subodh

    hi sean,
    nice post… but do you really absolutely draw no line in defending the freedom of speech at all costs in all democratic societies? isn’t upholding such a belief just as dogmatic as upholding one’s religious (or otherwise) beliefs? (sorry to have to bring this up), but what do you think about democratic post-war (formerly west) germany’s take on the freedom of speech? india (a patently democratic society where communal tensions have flaired up violently twice in the last twenty years) has strict laws against religiously inflammatory speech. such legislation is there to save lives, and i’d rather those laws were in place than not. your post was phrased in some rather general terms… it is this generality that makes me uneasy (one size fits all etc.)…

  • Belizean

    Greg Kuperberg:

    So I guess this technically qualifies as cowardice. But is it unacceptable cowardice?

    It might be acceptable cowardice, if the press did not insist on lying to us about it. They are too afraid to print the cartoons, and they refuse to admit that.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    I don’t think that the New York Times owes the administration thanks for not being as tyrannical (at least toward the domestic press) as Islamic terrorists.

    This is a bit OT, but it really doesn’t help to clarify the issue, when you characterize the admininstration as “not being as tyrannical… as Islamic terrorists”. You don’t have to be a rabid Bush supporter to admit that you can openly criticize George Bush and his administration without the slightest fear of reprisal, while openly criticizing Islam, especially if you are a muslim, puts your life in danger — even in the United States.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    …the New York Times doesn’t owe you anything either. They are a privately owned newspaper. Yes, they should print newsworthy things, because that is their product. But it’s not their “duty”.

    It’s not their legal duty. It is their moral duty under the ethical imperative that they themselves claim to be operating under. If they want to change that imperative, that’s fine. Let them announce that henceforth they will print a news item only if doing so will expose them to no risks whatsoever.

    The One intelligently designed:

    Let me make a few cartoons about Holucost or Black slavery and then see if they are courageous enough to print them. Would you advocate with the same reasoning then?


  • Tim D

    I generally agree with Sean’s (and Ted Rall’s) take on the matter, but its worth pointing out that for a lot of the people who are rioting, the issue is probably not just (or even mainly) about the cartoons. Riots always have a psychogical flashpoint, but they draw upon a larger reservoir of outrage over injustices (both perceived and real, depending on your politics, I suppose).

    I don’t think the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s were only about the acquittal of the police officers; anger arose out of years of police harassment and marginalization of the poor inner-city folk. Likewise, I would argue that these riots are less about religion and intolerance, than the fact that you have high unemployment, corrupt governments and a disturbingly high level of anger toward the U.S. and the “west” in general over the Iraq War, Palestine, etc. If the Muslim countries in question were prosperous and peaceful, my sense is most people would just roll their eyes and get on with their lives.

    So yeah, people are being stupid by rioting over a cartoon, I mean, if you’re gonna go to the trouble of protesting, at least make it about a substantive issue. But it’s always the straw that breaks the camel’s back, isn’t it?

  • Uncle Al

    Religion is impervious to – indeed strengthened by – all assaults except one: laughter. A priest can only deliver dignity.

    You will know a man by his fears.

  • Quibbler

    Firstly, I don’t think this controversy is really about images of Muhammad. One of the cartoons was of Muhammad with a turban shaped like a bomb — the idea was to depict Muslims generally as terrorists.

    What I blogged about this a couple of days ago is that that having a right to publish cartoons that racially/religiously profile terrorism doesn’t make it a good idea. Feministe’s Zuzu also wrote a great post about this.

    One of the (London) Times articles suggested that a Christian equivalent of the cartoons would be a cartoon of Jesus in a Nazi uniform in the context of discussion of the Catholic Church’s non-resistence to the Holocaust.


  • Frumious B.

    There is a fundamental difference between the 12 cartoons and both “Piss Christ” and “Holy Virgin Mary.” The cartoons were published in Denmark, where Muslims are a minority and typically immigrants. Publishing them was the last straw in a series of Danish anti-immigrant actions. The two pieces of art were controversial in the US, where Christians are a majority. Offensive work published by a majority aimed at a majority carries a very different message from offensive works published by a majority aimed at a minority. I’ve seen the publishing of the cartoons compared to the “not guilty” verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. It was seen by the minority community as a poke with a sharp stick, telling them that they and their concerns have no value.

    The Holocaust cartoon contest follows this vein. It’s not so much that Muslims blame Jews for the publishing of the cartoons, or that they think that the Danish will be particularly offended by material that ridicules the Holocaust. Muslim countries are looking for a sharp stick of their own, and someone to poke with it.

    When those 12 cartoons were circulated in the Muslim world, there were a few others included. One showed the prophet praying while a dog mounts him from behind. This cartoon even offends me, a Western atheist.

  • Mark

    Yes, but does it make you want to riot, destroy things and kill people?

  • Johan Richter

    It is relevant to know the background to the publication. A Danish writer of children’s book had wanted to include a picture of Muhammed in a book but had had problems finding a artist to draw the picture since they were afraid of getting killed. Accordingly Jyllands-Posten decided to solicit pictures of Muhammed to create a debate.

  • Quibbler

    Yes, but does it make you want to riot, destroy things and kill people?

    Killing people is never justified, in my book. But maybe I would want to riot if i saw the cartoons as part of a global anti-Muslim stance. One of the cartoons was making the statment that Muslims are terrorists, and if I was living under the threat of Dubya invading my country of origin because of this false and racist prejudice, and the whole of the Western world appeared to be backing up that prejudice on the grounds of “free speech,” then yes I might well want to protest. That doesn’t justify the deaths and the destruction, but I think the riots were inevitable.


  • Mark

    Q. I basically agree with you, all the way up to the rioting bit. Demonstrating – yes; rioting – I can’t agree with that.

  • Mark

    Q. I guess what I’m saying is that it is the destruction and violence that makes it rioting. Otherwise it is a peaceful demonstration.

  • Greg Kuperberg

    Belizean: First, if you don’t like the Times, don’t read the Times. It doesn’t sound like it’s a new idea for you that the Times falls short of standards, moral or otherwise. Beyond that, you are worrying about how other people get the news. We are all literate grown-ups here and we can decide for ourselves how to get the news.

    Second, no, merely criticizing Islam does not put your life in danger. There are ways to criticize a religion without deeply offending its adherents. Islam is no exception to that. I will grant you that if you deeply offend millions of Muslims, you accept more mortal risk than if you deeply offend millions of Republicans. So okay, that’s different. Although on the scale of how dangerous it is to deeply offend millions, Republicans are hardly at the virtuous limit. A deeply offended Republican bombed the Murrah building and killed 168 people, for example. Another deeply offended Republican (whose indignance, admittedly, could be disingenuous) said that the New York Times building deserved the same fate.

    So basically your all-or-nothing model of the risk of offending people is wrong. The New York Times building has put in substantial building security since 9/11, probably because of both Republicans and Muslims. They are not nearly as timid on either count as, for example, anonymous blog commenters.

  • Arun

    Since an Egyptian newspaper published the Danish cartoons in October 2005 (see #14) and did not spark violent protests back then, we have to understand the current uproar to be created and orchestrated for various reasons.

  • SB

    I support these cartoons and am tired of Muslims attempting to control my own freedoms of religion or speech. I am especially concerned about how Muslims (mainly those that follow strict Islamic laws) treat woman. Personally, this last points makes me feel that a great majority of Muslims are bigots and ignorant to the rights of others. When most Muslim women are given the “choice” to do X or Z, then I will be more open to listing to Muslims concerns about cartoons.

  • Morningstar

    The One intelligently designed wrote:
    […] Let me make a few cartoons about Holucost or Black slavery and then see if they are courageous enough to print them. Would you advocate with the same reasoning then?

    Yes, I most certainly would. Freedom of expression is freedom of expression; whether those who are (or feel) offended are Muslims, Jews, blacks, gays, or professional clowns is utterly irrelevant. Nothing should be sacred or taboo. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. And yes, that very much includes religion, race issues, and the Holocaust.*

    *What’s so frickin’ special about the Holocaust anyway? What makes it so much worse than, say, the Nanking Massacre, the Armenian Genocide, or Stalin’s reign of terror? Why can one freely deny or glorify the latter, while risking prosecution and imprisonment (!!) for doing the exact same thing with the former? There is no excuse for such blatant hypocrisy.

  • Quibbler

    I support these cartoons and am tired of Muslims attempting to control my own freedoms of religion or speech.

    Which Muslims? And how?

    I am especially concerned about how Muslims (mainly those that follow strict Islamic laws) treat woman.

    Me too. I’m also worried about how some strict Catholics and some Southern Baptists treat women. And I’m concerned about George Bush and scAlito treat women. And, come to that, a huge number of male mathematicians and scientists. Misogyny isn’t specific to Islam, or more prominent among Muslims. A lot of the biggest sexist shits in my life are atheist. (but what does that have to do with branding Muslims generally as terrorists?)

    Personally, this last points makes me feel that a great majority of Muslims are bigots and ignorant to the rights of others.

    Actually, funatmentalist Muslims are a *minority* of Muslims. And i think generalising from “some Muslims” to “Muslims generally” or “a great majority of Muslims” is bigotted.

    When most Muslim women are given the “choice” to do X or Z, then I will be more open to listing to Muslims concerns about cartoons.

    By the same logic: when all women have quick and easy access to contraceptives of their choice, and abortion funded by the state, and all women receive equal treatment to men both in law and in society, and when all LGBT people have equal treatment to straight people both in law and in society, and people of all races receive equal treatment in law and in society, then I’ll start listening to Christians and atheists.

    Sorry, I think your view is bigotted and illogical. By all means criticise misogyny and attempts to prohibit freedom of speech. But what you’re doing is generalising from some Muslims, and furthermore denying that having the right of speech comes with the responsibility of exercising judgement when using that freedom. Does having the right to call all Catholics Nazis make it a good idea? NO. So why do you see it as ok to call all Muslims bigotted sexist terrorists?


  • Quibbler

    Forgot to respond to Mark: your point is taken. I was using “rioting” in the same sense as “protesting.” Please read my comment 31 with “protesting” instead of “rioting” throughout.


  • Arun,00300001.htm

    It is instructive that the agitation against the Danish cartoons began three months after their publication. In many cases — dare one say, in nearly every case? — the outrage is manufactured by religious and political leaders who whip a frenzy among ignorant followers. Let’s stick with The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini placed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head only because he heard about demonstrations in the Indian subcontinent. He never read the book and nor did any of his assassins.

    After the rabble-rousers have manufactured the outrage, they incite their followers to violence. The argument then placed before governments is straightforward blackmail: if you do not ban the book/film/play/newspaper/etc then there will be a riot and people will die.

    Governments are expected to say, surely no cartoon is worth the lives of innocent people, and to promptly declare a ban.

    It is to the credit of Western societies that they rarely give in to this blackmail. In India, unfortunately, we surrender at the slightest provocation…..


  • Amara

    Here, the rabble-rousers existing on both sides: the minority of the minority Danish imams who whipped up the outrage among the Muslims, the western and muslim governments who found support in one way or another for their particular viewpoints, and the western media, who were offended at limits on their free speech and therefore poured salt in the existing wounds of the minority Muslims in their countries. Ugly story.

  • Frumious B.

    Yes, but does it make you want to riot, destroy things and kill people?

    I would like to think that were I a Muslim in one of the countries where violent demonstartions are taking place that I would be able to rise above the rabble rousing and expouse peaceful demonstrations. Don’t honestly know if I would live up to that or not. There, but for the grace of dog, go I.

  • Lubos Motl

    “Unfortunately I can’t demonstrate my good faith by my willingness to allow anyone to offend my own beliefs in the same way, since my beliefs are of a somewhat different character.”

    Indeed, you can’t. Whenever you demonstrate your willingness to allow anyone to offend your own politically correct, feminist beliefs, the Islamic fundamentalists start to look like innocent, mainstream, rational friends. 😉

  • Elliot

    Right Lubos,

    And anyone who offends you gets censored from you blog.

  • Lubos Motl

    Dear Elliot,

    if you look carefully, you will see that all these people, Peterwoits, Quantokens, Nigels Cooks, Connolleys, and our friends CI Pigs, Wolfgangs, and so forth keep on posting there. No other blog in the world can compete with mine in the diversity of opinions that appear there.


  • Elliot

    Is this the diversity you are talking about?


    Thu, 2 Feb 2006 18:37:06 -0500 (EST)
    From: “Lubos Motl” Add to Address Book Add Mobile Alert
    To: “Al Fansome”
    Subject: Re: Banned from your site

    Dear Al,

    you have freedom to express yourself at millions of other places. Sorry but I found your presence at my blog counterproductive. It’s my private place and my responsibility to clean it from things that I consider

    All the best


    Your own words my friend.

  • Quibbler

    Lubos has a more effective method than censorship — he expresses sentiments like “sexual harassment is invented by feminists to terrorise men” which effectively deters all real liberals from commenting there. Lubos’s blog is a beautiful example of irrationality that goes unoffended. And so he can happily deny that rape and assault and blatant sexism ever happen, even while make statements like “X wouldn’t happen if men were in charge.” People tend not to comment on those things in Lubos’s blog.

    But hey, that’s free speech in action, and Lubos has every right to publish them in his blog even if they’re morally disgusting and downright wrong.


  • Elliot

    My personal beef is that Lubos accused some of the posters here of acting like the communists in Czechoslovakia, when he is the one muzzling dissenting opinions on his blog.

    Blatant hypocrisy in my opinion. But after all he’s much smarter than I am so who am I to question his viewpoint.

  • Quibbler

    Elliot — the “problem” with free speech is that sometimes people say things that you don’t like. Does that mean the right to free speech should be scrapped? of coruse not. Dose it mean that free speech comes with a responsibility to exercise judgement? Absolutely. A lot of things Lubos (and others) says offend me. I personally think they should exercise better judgment. That’s not the same as saying they shouldn’t be allowed to say the things they are saying. It does mean that there are appropriate and inappropriate places for them to say it. Lubos can of course publish on his blog. That’s his right. If he were to post the same thing on my blog i would probably delete it, because it offends me and in my view inhibits constructive discussion. my bog, my rules; his blog, his rules.


  • Elliot

    Q. Agreed, you and he have a perfect right to manage content on you blog as you see fit. But when he posts comments like:

    “No other blog in the world can compete with mine in the diversity of opinions that appear there.”

    It seems to be somewhat of a contradiction with his behavior that needs to be illuminated.


  • Sean

    How about this for censorship: the topic of this comment thread is not the way in which Lubos manages his blog. Let’s move on, shall we?

  • Quibbler

    Fair enough, Sean. Sorry.


  • Clifford

    Can’t resist though: Elliot, comment #46 in reply to comment #45….



  • Elliot

    Clifford, glad I made your day.

    Sean, sorry I didn’t make yours. My apologies.


  • Sean

    No problem, folks. Just want to keep things somewhat on track.

  • Arun

    Why is the following relevant? The issue of the cartoons is being interpreted by some as a matter of how minorities are treated. Well, the following is about treatment of minorities; and these are not recent immigrants, these are people who have lived there for centuries.

    I’m sure you know how Islam is. You can do one of three things in the tribal agencies. One, you pay jaziya. Two, you embrace Islam. Three, you prepare to die.

    We pay jaziya.

    That’s Taranjit Singh, a Sikh from Peshawar telling me about how the Sikhs of Peshawar get by. Jaziya is a religious tax that some Muslim kings — most infamously the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb — used to levy on Non-Muslim subject.

    Jaziya is a requirement of Islamic religious law. More about it is here:

  • L

    I agree, we Moslems are still living in third world countries which are 50 or more years behind the western civilizations and on average our people are not as civilized, educated or as well-expressed as west and historically this is not just our own ancestors’ fault and do not forget what sort of violence and discriminatory actions this same west was deep into not very long ago but leaving all that on the side lets not be hypocrites about western media standing up for the freedom of speech or the right to know the truth. These are the same media who rarely talked about Saddam using chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and Kurds up until Bush decided to attack Iraq, and they still don’t include Iran since god forbid the people of such an evil country will be humanized and it is not in their interests that people know about it. They act so outraged if the stupid president of Iran makes insensitive comments about the Jewish Holocaust but they are fine with Turkey denying the Armenian Holocaust and Clinton resisting the recognition of that or even Shimon Peres making insensitive comments about it. You know what I think, human lives, their rights and cultures of other countries are worth nothing to western politician when it comes to their own interests and the major part of their media is unfortunately far from the idealistic advocate of freedom of speech or the truth for that matter and I guess we have no right to criticize them as long as we ourselves are living under much worst condition in our countries but at the same time it is a mistake to assume that Moslems are also blind and will buy the double standards and lies in the name of human right and freedom of speech specially since there are intolerant and fanatics among all groups of people who are just looking for excuses to start a war.

  • Amitabha

    Another interesting twist to an old story …

    Ziauddin Sardar a renowned commentator on Islam felt genuine hurt when he read the Satanic Verses and in accordance with the tradition in Islam, was willing to engage with this insult met through a book by presenting his arguments in another book. This book of his however, unlike his previous works found no publisher. As against the ideals of freedom of speech and expression what came to his startling revelation was the political economy of this freedom to speech and expression. The publication of his book would have been an inopportune step on a domain that was generating heated conflicts, and strengthening stereotypes. Sardar was denied his freedom of speech and expression because his was a voice from the same lumped ‘Islamic east’ that could have only inspired ‘barbaric’ modes of dissent.


  • Anti-Nothing

    To contribute my 2 cents worth, I believe that this whole rioting thing shouldn’t be taken as an indicator to the behaviour of the whole Islamic nation just as the Abu-Ghraib abuse cases weren’t supposed to represent the whole American society.

  • Arun

    In response to L (#57) I believe that most of the protests outside Denmark were orchestrated months after the fact by governments and non-governmental groups, that have no real standing with respect to human rights or respect for religion, because they have no respect for these in their daily operations.

    #58, Amitabha, I find the following book:
    Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair
    by Ziauddin Sardar
    # Hardcover: 303 pages
    # Publisher: Grey Seal (January 1, 1990)
    # Language: English
    # ISBN: 185640000X

    So is the claim that Ziauddin Sardar had additional writings on the Rushdie Affair that did not find a publisher?

  • Arun

    Further to L – certainly everyone has a right to speak; and the more speech and non-violent demonstrations rather than the other type, the better. How credible what is said really depends however, on the context of what is said. Credibility comes from speaking up based on principles rather than on special interest.
    is worth reading w.r.t. this last point.

  • Amitabha

    #60, Arun, Possibly. I do not know. (The author of the referenced blog may know more.)
    My guess is that the book was rejected by more than one `big’ publishers before it was published by a `small’ publisher.

  • Arun
  • Arun,1518,399263,00.html

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch politician forced to go into hiding after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, responds to the Danish cartoon scandal, arguing that if Europe doesn’t stand up to extremists, a culture of self-censorship of criticism of Islam that pervades in Holland will spread in Europe. Auf Wiedersehen, free speech.

  • Ranlen

    Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film Submission can be viewed at

  • ghazal

    There are two other articles about this subject at from other perspectives

  • Arun
  • Rory Connor


    Catholics subject to insensitivity (The Sunday Tribune, Ireland, 12 February 2006)

    “ALL people, all religions, have to be open to criticism but it must be constructive and sensitive. [A debate] . . . cannot be achieved by extremism in either culture.”

    “We in the Sunday Tribune are against censorship and believe passionately in freedom of speech. But the publication of cartoons that Muslims find so offencive was not correct. For that reason we are not reproducing them today”
    (Sunday Tribune Editorial 5 February).

    Is the Tribune serious? Do you recall the obscene and vicious attacks on Nora Wall (Sister Dominic). “Vile Nun”, “Pervert Nun”, “I was Raped by Anti-Christ”. Did you imagine that these came from people who were concerned about child abuse? Do you remember the article by the Sunday World ‘s crime correspondent Paul Williams “Rape Nun’s Abuse Pact by Smyth”. He claimed that Nora Wall had procured children for Fr Brendan Smyth! Nora Wall sued and got damages of 175,000. I don’t recall the Sunday Tribune (or any “Liberal” newspaper) highlighting the issue. Did you even mention it and if so when?

    Several years ago, The Irish Times did an article about “Piss Christ”, an artistic masterpiece that showed a crucifix in a bucket of urine. American Christians who wanted to deny public money to the artist were called “fascists” by The Irish Times. What was the constructive and sensitive response by the Tribune?

    Do you really think that liberals can (literally) spew vomit over Christianity and their own culture and then demand tolerance of Muslims?

    Berthold Brecht was the leading intellectual in the Weimar Republic. He was also a Stalinist bootlicker. His own mistress Carola Neher, star of The Threepenny Opera, visited the Soviet Union, was arrested and disappeared forever into the Gulag. Brecht did not protest or lift a finger to help her (it would have meant allying himself with “reactionaries”). The obscene treatment of Nora Wall, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy and Sister Xaviera by Irish “liberals” is on the same moral level and you are equally unfitted to fight against our modern fascists.

    Rory Connor, 11 Lohunda Grove, Dublin 15.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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